When domestic travel restrictions were fully lifted in Malaysia after the Covid19 pandemic entered its omicron phase, popular domestic tourism destinations were predictably fully booked. But that wasn’t the kind of travel I wanted to prioritise at the time. I wanted to first support sustainable resorts that I didn’t want us to lose. After Taman Negara and Alunan in Perhentian Kecil, I decided to go to Tanjung Jara resort in Terengganu. And I decided to go via the old hill station of Fraser’s Hill, following the route through the old mining towns in the Hulu Selangor district.

Leaving Kuala Lumpur via the most beautiful route

The morning was damp with the promise of rain. As I drove out, a light drizzle began to fall, which eased and returned as though breathing. It was a weekday, but KL traffic was unusually modest, as people had not quite fully returned to offices yet. That was good for me, as it left more time to enjoy the road trip north.

But I was not leaving Kuala Lumpur to go on the North-South highway. Nor was I going east through the Karak pass to approach Fraser’s Hill from Pahang. I intended to drive on a road I had not driven before. I decided to approach Fraser’s Hill from the old road in Selangor.

The highway turned into an elevated highway I had not been on before. It seemed unusually tall, and as it turned the cityscape came into view dramatically. I passed a sign, briefly notifying me that this particular spot was the actual tallest highway in the country.

Unfortunately, I had no one in the passenger seat to take photos on my behalf. And there was nowhere to stop to savour the point of interest. Cognisant of the hazard of getting distracted on the tallest highway span, I turned back to the road and motored on.

Bukit Lagong Forest

Taking this route meant I would leave KL via Selayang – in my opinion, easily the most beautiful exit of KL. Most beautiful, for the way is flanked by forest. On the left was the Bukit Lagong forest, which is contiguous to the restored forest in FRIM.

The thick trees loomed green and dark, and on such damp mornings, a mist hangs about them, diffusing up to the air. It was a far cry from the urban sprawl that was more common for the other directions out of KL.

Templer Park

On the right was Sungai Tua forest, at the edge of which were several forest reserves. I passed by Templer Park*, then Kanching Eco Forest Park. Almost immediately across the road was another park, the Commonwealth Forest Park. You don’t really associate urbanised Selangor with places of natural beauty, but actually she still has many of them. I resolved to visit each of these one day.

A small, upscale old neighbourhood is nestled against the forest. I wondered whether it would be worth giving up rail connectivity to live amidst the beauty of the place.

The area around Rawang and Kanching had once been among the earliest tin mining towns in Selangor. Little trace of it remains in the now-sprawling suburban townships.

Waterfall in Kanching Eco Forest Park, Selangor. Photo by alea Film on Unsplash

The lovely lakes of Serendah

I drove past Rawang, skirting around it towards Serendah. Entering its town limits, the landscape change was obvious. Serendah was much flatter, it felt low-lying. I drove past an area where I seemed to be surrounded by placid fishing ponds. And it occurred to me, Serendah must have been one of the old mining towns in Selangor** as well. These pools must have been the remnants of the old tin mining ponds.

A detour into Serendah

On impulse, I decided to turn into the town instead of just driving through it. I was immediately rewarded with the curious sight of sinkhole or bellmouth spillways*** in one of the pools. Serendah became suddenly more interesting to me; perhaps I should come here on purpose, and explore.

The road took me back into the forest edge. I drove past an aboriginal settlement. Continuing onward, I came upon the understated signage to Sekeping Serendah, a forest retreat that I had seen advertising for. Seeing a sign for Serendah waterfall, I decided to continue my detour, until I came right upon the entrance into the reserve.

But it began to rain again, and a hike to the waterfall seemed ill-advised. And it would be better to reach Fraser’s Hill before it well and truly rained. So I turned back.

A post marked with the words, Sekeping Serendah, showing the way to the Selangor forest retreat, where mining towns have turned into sleepy suburb and country retreats.
Discovering the way to the forest retreat, Sekeping Serendah.

Serendah and the old mining towns of Selangor

Wait, is that a train station? Serendah has a KTM Komuter train station?

I did a double-take. Indeed, it was a Komuter station. Why, that meant you could commute to work in KL from this peaceful, countryside suburb!

In retrospect, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Serendah was a British mining town, after all. Of course they would have built a train line to get all that ore out to the port. And indeed, the rail line goes to Kuala Lumpur, which the British chose as their colonial capital, and onward to Port Klang (then known as Port Swettenham, for the British Resident of Selangor named it after himself).

Road in Batang Kali. Photo by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

Recommended reading:

Ee Yoke Chan. Serendah Then & Now. 2023.


A history of Serendah, as told by a local through her efforts to collect them from oral and published sources.
You can read it at the National Library of Malaysia, in their monographs section. To buy a copy, contact the author on her Facebook page.


The pretty streams of Kuala Kubu Bharu

The Selangor ‘lake district’ countryside scenes continued on past Hulu Yam and Batang Kali, both towns also the sites of former tin mining. This route to Fraser’s Hill passes through Kuala Kubu Bharu, in the main catchment of Selangor river, before crossing the border to Pahang.

Kuala Kubu Bharu has been enjoying some degree of popularity with the camping and outdoorsmen community, as it is close to Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley but still has a beautiful natural countryside. Keen to see for myself whether this appeal is obvious, I left the main road and turned into a country road that passes through a place evocatively named “Ampang Pechah” (Burst Dam).

I passed through more countryside landscape, of scattered housing and small farms, fishing ponds interspersed with bush and woods. But as I neared Kuala Kubu Bharu, the road ran parallel to the stream, and the riverbank was lovely and green. And I could see why some people like to spend their weekends here.

Driving along a tree-lined road in Kuala Kubu Bharu through one of the old tin mining towns of Selangor.
Driving through Kuala Kubu Bharu old road.

The story of Ampang Pechah

I was curious about the name Ampang Pechah all through the road. But I saw nothing at all that resembled a dam, remnants of one, nor were there any other signs pointing the way to the place. I thought no more about it. But I later found a book in Fraser’s Hill, that was published by the Kuala Kubu Historical Society. Surprised that Kuala Kubu had a historical society, I looked them up. That’s when I realised that Kuala Kubu, too, was a former tin mining town.

Not only was it a mining town, it was one of the most important of the mining towns in Selangor to the British. The tin deposits were lucrative, and it was tantalisingly close to the gold and timber riches of Pahang. Much work was done to assess the feasibility of extending the rail line to Pahang across the highlands, perhaps connecting it to Kuala Lipis, the colonial capital founded by Pahang’s British Resident on the upper reaches of the Pahang river.

At the time, the local Malay settlement had built a gigantic dam a mile wide and 100 yards thick. Supposedly it was for panning tin, but they also cultivated fish there. But one October night in 1883, the massive 18th century dam burst^, flooding the entire Kuala Kubu settlement under ten feet of water. Almost nothing remained, and 35 people died. The villagers lost everything.

Driving along Ampang Pechah road, the site of a burst dam that had once washed away one of the most important mining towns of Selangor in British colonial times.
Driving through Ampang Pechah.

Discovering Kuala Kubu Bharu at Sungai Selangor Dam

Continuing on, I looked forward to Selangor Dam on the way. I wasn’t disappointed. The view on my left opened out to the wide waters of the dam lake, picturesque forest islands seeming to float upon it. Fortunately, there was a proper parking lay-by you can turn into to enjoy the view.

There was a little park with seating areas, and a ‘Kuala Kubu Bharu’ sign before it, presumably for photo-taking. A viewing tower gets you a little bit higher for a slightly better view, with recreational activities in Kuala Kubu Bharu advertised on its outer walls, and on a Hulu Selangor map inside: waterfalls, hot springs, white water rafting, paragliding.

The Sungai Selangor dam lake.

The beautiful drive to the border

Near the Sungai Selangor dam, I drove past the Chilling river picnic spot. There is a well-known waterfall upstream. I briefly wondered at the name; it didn’t seem native. Maybe the British named it, or perhaps someone misunderstood a question, describing the river instead of providing its name.

From then on, the road to the Pahang border winds its way up the foothills leading up to the headwaters of the Selangor river. The jungle grew thicker, and in its occasional break you could sometimes catch glimpses of the forested valley beyond. It was so beautiful, that it finally occurred to me that I could record a video of the drive by adjusting my dashboard phone holder.

Reaching the Gap

When you reach “The Gap”, it feels as though you’ve arrived to Fraser’s Hill. After all, you will immediately come across a sign that says so. But no, actually this is just the bottom of the hill climb to the actual settlement you want to reach.

There are two routes up to Fraser’s Hill. Both are one-way; one is for ascending and the other for descending. The Gap junction area is where the two meet. Once, there was only one road, which opened for one way and then the other at intervals. But the Works Department eventually built another one.

I always wondered, why the place was called “the Gap”. Gap in what? The British laconic way of naming things can sometimes be so annoying. But, while writing about Dataran Merdeka, I read a little bit about the Selangor Civil War. At one point, the war between Raja Mahdi, a former lord of Klang, and Tengku Kudin^^, son-in-law and Viceroy of the Sultan, went all the way up to Hulu Selangor. After capturing Kuala Lumpur, Raja Mahdi pressed Tengku Kudin’s forces to the border of Pahang. The latter responded by bringing in reinforcements from Pahang, who marched to Selangor through the mountains and entered it via… the gap in the mountain range, a route known to the people since the old Melaka empire when Pahang was its vassal. His combined forces successfully drove Raja Mahdi out of Selangor.

So, although my plan was to begin my Pahang river road trip in Fraser’s Hill, along the way I unknowingly passed through an old town in Selangor that was briefly won by Pahang.

There is still quite a bit of driving from here.

The winding road to Fraser’s Hill

But there was still more driving to do. Droplets of rain began to fall. As a child, I remember my mother telling me how driving the narrow road terrified her, as the gorge yawned uncomfortably close. Perhaps the road is better now, as it didn’t seem as though you were in perpetual danger of tumbling down the side.

Nonetheless, as I passed by slope repair worksites – for you see, lower priority maintenance works were on hold due to the pandemic – I felt glad that I sensibly did not linger too long in Serendah. I didn’t really want to be on the Fraser’s Hill road if it should rain more heavily.

Driving up the narrow road to Fraser’s Hill.

After yet more beautiful driving up the forested hill, I finally came upon another Fraser’s Hill sign. The air was noticeably cooler, a damp jungle scent in the air. It was as I remembered.


Notes:

* Named after Tun Sir Gerald Templer, the British High Commissioner of Malaya appointed by Winston Churchill to respond to communist guerrilla warfare during the Malayan Emergency, in the immediate post-WW2 period.

** Like many colonial-era towns in Selangor, Serendah was first settled by Sumatra migrants, who migrated to the peninsula following civil war in their homeland and subsequent fall of the Pagaruyung kingdom to Dutch influence. Originally settling as farming communities, more Minangkabau and other Sumatra peoples joined them from territories formerly in the Pagaruyung sphere. When tin was discovered, they worked the tin mines together with later migrants from China, who also came to seek better fortunes as imperial China struggled in the Opium Wars.

The high migration of Malayic and closely-related peoples from the wider archipelago during this period (my ancestors included) has led some revisionists to conclude that therefore, there is no such thing as indigenous peninsula Malays at all. This is not true. If you had any friends from outside of the towns and cities, you’ll know this is ridiculous.

*** I didn’t know it at the time, but this is the local attraction Perigi Tujuh, or ‘Seven Wells’. But I knew what it was, because I had seen a postcard of a similar engineering structure in the Peak District, the Ladybower Reservoir.


Notes on Kuala Kubu

^ According to my brief study of books in the National Library, there are several versions for why the original Kuala Kubu dam burst.

According to folklore, there lived a white crocodile in the dam lake. The village headman, who was also considered the shaman (pawang), asked the crocodile if it meant the people well, in which case it ought to leave, as the day was done. The crocodile slithered into the water. Since then, the village assumed that it was the totem guardian of the lake.

Then the British sent 26-year-old Cecil Ranking to be the town magistrate and tax collector. He thought that the settlement should move to higher ground, since it flooded whenever the river was high. Yet this same Cecil Ranking dropped three charges of dynamite into the dam 40 feet from the wood-and-clay embankment that held back the river, just over a week prior to the incident. Apparently he wanted to catch fish the shortcut way; he was actually given the dynamite to clear land for the site of the new settlement.

Why did I mention the albino crocodile? Well, folklore has it that when told about the sacred crocodile, Ranking immediately decided it was a danger to the village. So, even though nobody has been eaten and no one asked him to (in fact people asked him not to), he went to look for it and shot the crocodile. Legend has it that rain immediately began to fall after the crocodile died, and the river rose so high that it broke the dam apart. 35 people died, including Ranking himself.

So maybe it was just that the dam was old, and further weakened by the tremors from modern dynamite mining. Sure, maybe it was just coincidence that a dam that stood for 100 years just happened to collapse mere months after Cecil Ranking and his dynamite fishing and crocodile shooting arrived. But part of me wants to put it on Ranking, just for being an insufferable asshole. In fact, he could have survived the catastrophe. The investigation report had testimony from his Chinese servant who urged him to flee the house, warning that it was going to go under. When the water rose to his chest, the servant had the common sense to jump out of the house and swim to shore. His arrogant master, who insisted that the house will not come underwater, did not survive being wrong.

But he did posthumously get his re-settled town, named Kuala Kubu Bharu, i.e. New Kuala Kubu.

^^ Although a royal of Selangor by marriage, and acting on behalf of Selangor, Tengku Kudin was also the Kedah crown prince. The fact that he was not a Selangorian did not help the root conflict, which was about foreigners usurping traditional roles of the Selangor nobility. However, for getting involved in the Selangor Civil War, Kedah stripped him of his title.


Hulu Selangor is worth a drive, whether or not you’re going to Fraser’s Hill. Pin for your weekend trip idea plans!

Road trip: A drive through Selangor old mining towns
Hulu Selangor old mining towns
Drive to Fraser's Hill through old mining towns in Selangor

10 Responses

  1. Pam says:

    What a breathtaking road trip. Such a smart idea to take the road (and great that you didn’t have a ton of traffic when you left). The waterfall and the lake are stunning. Sounds like road-tripping is a great way to see the countryside and smaller towns. I’ll keep that in mind if/when I get to Malaysia!

    • Teja says:

      You’ll see a completely different Malaysia on road trips, definitely. I always feel like such a city slicker when I go on road trips to the countryside and discover things like tyre swans in some village and local foodie trends, and my friends from those states are like, whaaat, you’re just discovering that now??

  2. San says:

    Embarking on the scenic drive to Fraser’s Hill through the Old Mining Towns of Selangor is nothing short of a breathtaking journey that seamlessly blends natural beauty with historical charm. The picturesque landscapes and lush greenery along the way create a mesmerizing tapestry, painting a vivid picture of Malaysia’s rich heritage. The quaint charm of the old mining towns adds a nostalgic touch to the drive, offering glimpses into the country’s past while surrounded by the tranquility of nature. This route not only provides an escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life but also invites you to immerse yourself in the captivating tales woven into the fabric of the Old Mining Towns of Selangor. A drive to Fraser’s Hill via these historic gems is a true testament to the beauty and diversity that Malaysia has to offer, leaving travelers with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the country’s unique blend of culture and natural wonders.

  3. Gosh everything is so green. What a beautiful area. I really want to go back to Malaysia for a longer visit.

    • Teja says:

      It really is! It’s not very touristy, so there will probably be a degree of effort to figure out. But it’s a pretty place and I hear there are even activities like Harry Potter-themed flying fox and paragliding.

  4. anukrati says:

    That is such a beautiful road trip. I can imagine how much fun you must have had. I am planning a trip to Langkawi this month, as I have not been to that part of Maaysia.

    • Teja says:

      I’ve not been to Langkawi in ages! A northerner friend of mine was just complaining to me yesterday about the unsatisfying state of Langkawi, but then I’ve never heard northerners not be dissatisfied so… :D She did invite me to visit to see whether I agreed or had a contrary opinion. The Langkawi that I remember from my first non-family trip had waterfalls and legends and beaches, and it’s a UNESCO Geopark now too. And, as a kid, I was really amused that two of its accompanying islands is called ‘big fart’ and ‘little fart’! lol

  5. Lisa says:

    Such a beautiful road trip. I love being able to be spontaneous and take detours – it’s amazing what you find. Thank you for highlighting a beautiful area that I now have added to my must do list when I visit Malaysia.

    • Teja says:

      Me too! Even though Malaysia isn’t known for road trips like, say, the USA or Canada, road trips are actually a great way to see it, for historical reasons that I’ll get into more in the later articles from this road trip. tldr; the towns connected by rail and tours are far, far younger than the settlements that aren’t, and the cultural experience completely different.

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